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An augmented model for psychodynamic interpersonal therapy
for patients with non-epileptic seizures
Article in Psychotherapy Theory Research & Practice · March 2009
DOI: 10.1037/a0015138 · Source: PubMed
2 authors:
Stephanie Howlett
Markus Reuber
Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
The University of Sheffield
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Emotion processing in patients with Functional Neurological Symptoms View project
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Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training
2009, Vol. 46, No. 1, 125–138
© 2009 American Psychological Association
DOI: 10.1037/a0015138
Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS
Foundation Trust, Royal Hallamshire
Royal Hallamshire Hospital
Nonepileptic seizures (NES) are one of
the most common functional (medically
unexplained) symptoms seen by neurologists. Although most experts consider
psychotherapy the treatment of choice,
few therapeutic approaches have been
described in detail. Given that NES
occur in the context of many different
psychopathologies, it remains uncertain
whether there is 1 intervention that can
benefit all comers or whether it is necessary to offer individualized psychotherapy. This article describes an approach grounded in psychodynamic
interpersonal therapy but augmented
with elements of cognitive– behavioral
therapy, somatic trauma therapy, and
the involvement of caregivers and family members. The approach was developed in the setting of a specialist psychotherapy service for patients with
functional neurological disorders presenting to British hospital-based neurologists. The authors have previously
shown that it is associated with signifi-
cant improvements in psychological
functioning, health-related functioning,
and a symptom count. Three case reports illustrate how the treatment can
be adapted to meet different patients’
Stephanie Howlett, Department of Neurology, Sheffield
Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, England; Markus Reuber, Academic
Unit of Neurology, Division of Genomic Medicine, University of Sheffield, Royal Hallamshire Hospital.
We acknowledge the help of Richard Grünewald, consultant neurologist, for his feedback on this article.
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to
Stephanie Howlett, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Glossop Road, Sheffield
S10 2JF, England. E-mail: [email protected]
Keywords: nonepileptic seizures, neurology, psychotherapy, psychodynamic
interpersonal therapy, trauma
Nonepileptic seizures (NES) are episodes of
altered movement, sensation, or experience resembling epileptic seizures but not associated
with ictal (during the course of a seizure) electrical discharges in the brain. They can be defined
positively as episodes of loss of control that occur
in response to distressing situations, sensations,
emotions, conflicts, or memories when alternative coping mechanisms are inadequate or have
been overwhelmed. The overwhelming majority
of NES are considered as beyond patients’ voluntary control (Gates, 1998; LaFrance & Devinsky, 2002; Reuber, 2008). NES are classed as
“conversion disorder with seizures or convulsions” (Axis I, 300.11) in the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.,
or DSM–IV; American Psychiatric Association,
1994) and appear as “dissociative convulsions”
(F44.4) in the International Classification of Diseases 10th Edition Classification of Mental and
Behavioural Disorders: Clinical Descriptions
and Diagnostic Guidelines (ICD-10; World
Health Organization, 1992), although it is recognized that NES can also occur in malingering and
factitious disorders. The discrepant classification
illustrates the difficulties that exist with this particular area of current psychiatric nosology
Howlett and Reuber
(Mayou, Kirmayer, Simon, Kroenke, & Sharpe,
2005). Using the current multiaxial nosologic approach, more than 90% of patients with NES
have psychiatric comorbidity, although in many
cases it could be argued that NES are actually
most easily understood as a manifestation of another psychiatric disorder. Patients most commonly fulfill the current diagnostic criteria for
other somatoform (22%– 84%), other dissociative
(22%–91%), posttraumatic stress (35%– 49%),
depressive (57%– 85%), or anxiety (11%–50%)
disorders. What is more, it has been reported that
25%– 67% of patients with NES fulfill the
DSM–IV criteria for personality disorder. Psychometric tests reveal a range of abnormal personality profiles in the majority of patients. In most
studies, the largest group of NES patients have
features of borderline personality disorder
(Lacey, Cook, & Salzberg, 2007; Reuber, 2008).
Many questions about the etiology of NES
remain unanswered. However, only a small minority of patients (perhaps 1 in 20) seem to have
seizures without any other psychiatric symptoms
and in the absence of personal or social circumstances that could explain a dissociative or conversion process (Moore & Baker, 1997; Reuber,
Howlett, Khan, & Grünewald, 2007). A history
of trauma or the presence of current conflicts or
dilemmas are particularly common features
(Bowman, 1993; Fiszman, Alves-Leon, Nunes,
D’Andrea, & Figuera, 2004; Fleisher et al., 2002;
Reuber et al., 2007; Van et al., 2004). Other
relevant factors include psychological features
(like a predominantly avoidant coping style,
marked emotional dysregulation, alexithymia,
and the tendency to express psychological distress in a somatic fashion or to dissociate), social
factors (like a disturbed family environment or
financial insecurity), and “neurologic” comorbidity (like head injuries or intellectual disability).
About 5%–10% of patients with NES have additional epileptic seizures, which almost always
precede the onset of NES (Lesser, Lueders, &
Dinner, 1983).
The prevalence of NES has been estimated as
2 to 33 in 100,000 (Benbadis, Allen, & Hauser,
2000). This makes NES one of the most common
medically unexplained symptoms encountered by
neurologists (Reuber, Mitchell, Howlett, Crimlisk, & Grünewald, 2005). The authors of one
study, which reportedly captured all patients with
a blackout first presenting to a neurologist, emergency room, or primary care physician, thought
that 57.4% had epilepsy, 22.3% had fainted, and
18.0% had NES (Kotsopoulos et al., 2003).
About three fourths of NES patients are women
(Reuber, 2008).
The visible manifestations of NES are similar
to those of epileptic seizures. The most common
semiology involves excessive movement of
limbs, trunk, and head. Seizures with stiffening
and tremor or seizures with atonia are less frequent. NES are typically diagnosed when attacks
involve impairment of consciousness. Although
the ICD-10 states that in NES— or dissociative
seizures—“loss of consciousness is absent and
replaced by a state of stupor or trance” (World
Health Organization, 1992, p. 159), most patients
will claim to be completely out for at least
one part of their seizures (Schwabe, Howell, &
Reuber, 2007). Occasionally, neurologists also
apply the diagnosis to purely motor, sensory, or
experiential attacks akin to simple partial epileptic seizures involving no impairment of consciousness (Lesser, 1996).
Although NES can start abruptly, seizure onset
is more commonly gradual than in epilepsy.
Many patients describe physical symptoms of
panic or hyperventilation during their seizures,
often without being aware that they are anxious.
Phases of vigorous and less vigorous motor activity can come and go. Pelvic thrusting occurs in
epileptic seizures but is more commonly seen in
NES. Ophisthotonus (arc de cercle) may be seen.
The head may shake from side to side. Eyes and
mouth are much more likely to be closed than in
epileptic seizures. Ictal crying or verbal communication may be observed. Eye opening may be
resisted. Purposeful movements or signs of reactivity may be observed while patients appear unresponsive (Reuber, 2008). More than one quarter of patients with NES give a history of ictal
incontinence of urine. Fecal incontinence is also
reported (Reuber, Pukrop, Mitchell, Bauer, &
Elger, 2003). Cyanosis (bluish discoloration of
the skin) is unusual (James, Marshall, & CarewMcColl, 1991). NES typically last longer than
epileptic seizures. One study found that generalized tonic clonic seizures lasted from 50 to 92 s,
whereas NES lasted 20 to 805 s. Many NES went
on for more than 2 min (Gates, Ramani, Whalen,
& Loewenson, 1985). Prolonged NES treated as
status epilepticus (repeated epileptic seizures
without recovery of consciousness) occur in
about one third of NES patients, and more than
one quarter of patients diagnosed with NES at an
Brief Therapy for Nonepileptic Seizures
epilepsy center have received intensive care treatment for presumed status epilepticus at least once
(Reuber et al., 2003).
Given the superficial similarities with epilepsy
and the often dramatic seizure presentations, it is
perhaps not surprising that most patients are initially diagnosed as having epilepsy and carry this
incorrect label for several years. Three quarters of
patients with NES (and no additional epilepsy)
have received (ineffective) treatment with antiepileptic drugs by the time the diagnosis is made (de
Timary et al., 2002; Reuber, Fernández, Bauer,
Helmstaedter, & Elger, 2002).
In view of this, the process of communicating
the diagnosis of NES often involves the removal
of a previous diagnosis of epilepsy. Many patients are left confused or angry by this experience (Carton, Thompson, & Duncan, 2003; Green,
Payne, & Barnitt, 2004), and this is the point at
which most neurologists refer patients for some sort
of psychological intervention (LaFrance, Rusch, &
Machan, 2008).
Although there are no high-quality studies
proving the effectiveness of psychological intervention (Baker, Brooks, Goodfellow, Bodde, &
Aldenkamp, 2007; Reuber, Howlett, & Kemp,
2005), most experts consider psychotherapy the
treatment of choice (Devinsky, 1998; Gates,
1998; LaFrance & Barry, 2005; Lesser, 2003;
Rusch, Morris, Allen, & Lathrop, 2001). Despite
this endorsement, very few therapeutic approaches have been described in detail. One notable exception is a pilot study that used
cognitive– behavioral therapy to focus on anxiety
and avoidance (Goldstein, Deale, MitchellO’Malley, Toone, & Mellers, 2004). A detailed
account of a psychodynamic approach to NES
also exists. This approach places much emphasis
on alleviating the effects of traumatization but is
not structured in a way that would allow easy
replication (Kalogjera-Sackellares, 2004). Most
other reports of psychotherapeutic interventions
lack detail or are based on the treatment of a
small number of cases (Reuber et al., 2005).
Antidepressant and antianxiety medications
are commonly used for the symptomatic treatment of comorbid disorders, and there is some
evidence for the effectiveness of diazepam (Ataoglu, Özcetin, Icmeli, & Özbulut, 2003). The use
of antidepressant drugs has not been studied in
patients with NES, although they can be effective
in patients with other medically unexplained
symptoms (O’Malley et al., 1999). Clinical expe-
rience has suggested that pharmaceutical treatment can be a helpful adjunct to therapy for some
patients, giving them the resilience to engage in
treatment, whereas for others the numbing of
emotions that can occur with antidepressants
makes emotional processing more difficult.
One fundamental question about the psychological treatment of patients with NES is whether
it is possible to devise an intervention that could
be of benefit to all comers or whether it is necessary to offer individual patients very different
psychotherapeutic approaches. Some clinically
distinct subgroups have been described, such as
older patients (Duncan, Oto, Martin, & Pelosi,
2006), men (Oto, Conway, McGonigal, Russel, &
Duncan, 2005), and individuals with learning disabilities (Duncan & Oto, 2008), but there is only
limited understanding of psychodynamic subgroups that probably also exist. The complex
etiology of NES means that therapists face an
almost unlimited number of possible combinations of predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating factors; psychiatric comorbidities; and family and social problems (Bowman & Markand,
1996; Reuber et al., 2007). Although psychotherapy may help in most common scenarios, the
existing evidence about the effectiveness of psychotherapy would suggest that different forms of
treatment would be most appropriate for the
range of different patient populations who may
present with NES (Roth & Fonagy, 2005).
Previous approaches to patients with NES have
either focused on a remediable feature (such as
avoidance) that is very common regardless of the
particular etiology of NES (Goldstein et al.,
2004) or channeled patients to the approach that
appeared most suitable for their problem (Rusch
et al., 2001). This report describes a third way of
tailoring a common approach to individual patients depending on the nature of contributing
etiological factors. This approach was developed in the setting of a specialist psychotherapy service for patients with functional neurological disorders in two British hospitals since
January 2003 and has now been used with more
than 200 patients. We have previously demonstrated that this approach is associated with significant improvements in three patient-reported
outcome measures (the Clinical Outcomes in
Routine Evaluation Outcome Measure, Short
Form–36 Health Survey, and Patient Health
Questionnaire–15). The improvements were
maintained 6 months after the end of treatment.
Howlett and Reuber
About 50% of patients showed improvements in
at least one of the measures. We have also demonstrated that these improvements may be
achieved at the modest cost of £5,328 ($10,483)
per quality-adjusted life year (Reuber, Burness,
Howlett, Brazier, & Grünewald, 2007). Here we
offer a more detailed description of our approach.
Three case reports demonstrate how the treatment
is adapted to different patients.
Therapeutic Models
Our therapeutic approach is an adaptation of
the model of brief psychodynamic interpersonal therapy developed by Hobson (1985).
The original model was found to have effects
equivalent to those of cognitive– behavioral
therapy for the treatment of depression (D. A.
Shapiro & Firth, 1987), and an adapted model
for functional somatic disorders, on which our
therapy is based, was shown to be helpful and
cost effective in the treatment of functional
bowel disorders (Creed et al., 2003; Guthrie,
Creed, Dawson, & Tomeson, 1991). The therapy uses an accessible, empathic approach, inviting correction and collaboration with the
patient. Key features include (a) the assumption that the patient’s problems arise from or
are exacerbated by disturbances of significant
personal relationships, with dysfunctional interpersonal patterns usually originating earlier
in their lives, and the explicit linking of this to
the patient’s symptoms, and (b) a tentative,
encouraging, supportive approach from the
therapist, using the terms I and we to emphasize the collaborative nature of the work. Understanding hypotheses are used to develop
awareness of the patient’s current feelings
(e.g., “I guess you might be feeling quite angry
when you remember that”). Linking hypotheses
are introduced to make connections between
current feelings and other feelings both inside
and outside therapy (e.g., “You say you’re feeling small and frightened now—I wonder if
that’s a bit like how you felt as a child when
your parents used to fight?”). Explanatory hypotheses look for possible underlying reasons
for a patient’s behavior, particularly a repeated
pattern of behavior (e.g., “When you try so
hard not to get upset here with me, maybe it’s
because your dad used to beat you more if you
cried, so you came to feel that showing your
feelings was bad and dangerous. Maybe it even
feels as if it might make me angry”).
The key mechanisms for therapeutic progress
are seen as the identification and change of unhelpful patterns of interpersonal relationships and
the more effective processing of emotions both
regarding current issues and in relation to painful
memories or areas of patients’ lives that may not
have been dealt with previously. Because of the
florid, easily triggered symptomatology and level
of psychological traumatization of many patients
with NES, this approach was combined with concepts and techniques from a model of somatic
trauma therapy, which includes techniques to
control autonomic arousal, to track somatic
symptoms and link them with emotional triggers,
and to process traumatic memories without retraumatizing potentially fragile patients (Rothschild, 2000).
Structure of the Therapy
Treatment consists of a 2-hr initial semistructured interview that is followed by up to nineteen
50-min therapy sessions (with a flexibly enforced
upper limit) at weekly or fortnightly intervals.
Table 1 provides an overview of key treatment
aims and interventions, presented roughly in the
order in which they are likely to occur in therapy,
although this is applied flexibly according to the
therapist’s assessment of each patient.
First Session
Initial engagement. The difficulties in engaging patients with functional somatic symptoms in
psychological therapy are well recognized (Guthrie, 1996; House, 1995; Sharpe, Peveler, &
Mayou, 1992). In our recent study (Howlett,
Grünewald, Khan, & Reuber, 2007), only 48.4%
of the patients initially referred were considered
suitable, and only 66.6% of those starting therapy
completed treatment. The causes of drop out include anger, often focused on how patients were
told that their symptoms did not have a physical
cause, and confusion, particularly when they
have been previously diagnosed with and treated
for epilepsy (Carton et al., 2003; Thompson,
2007). Patients may feel that the diagnosing doctor is accusing them of imagining or faking their
symptoms or feel stigmatized by the referral for
psychological therapy, which they associate with
weakness or insanity. These factors make the
Brief Therapy for Nonepileptic Seizures
TABLE 1. Overview of Key Treatment Aims and Interventions
Key aims
Initial engagement
Develop formulation
Changing illness perceptions
Symptom control
Increasing independence
Encouraging self-care
Enlistment of carers and other health care
Improvement of emotional processing
Processing trauma
Address negative feelings about therapy, reinforce diagnosis and mind–body
link, negotiate willingness to engage, and agree to limited number of
sessions with defined targets (treatment contract)
Development of individualized PPPT model based on symptom history
(somatic, emotional, past, and present including illness perceptions), life
chronology (including traumas, dilemmas, and history of physical illness),
interpersonal relationships (past and present), current life pressures
(including physical comorbidity), coping resources (home environment,
personal strategies, emotional expressiveness, avoidance, self-care, and
Examples of links of psychological and physical processes, offer psychological
formulation (PPPT), symptoms–emotions diary
Breathing, sensory focusing, EFT, relaxation, EMDR
Goal setting, anxiety self-management, enlisting family support (reducing
dependence), encouraging separation, and self-care
Recognizing and setting limits, assertiveness, and self-nurturing
Communication with involved parties, joint sessions with patient and carer(s),
written materials for carers
Exploration of painful issues, emotional diary, exploring emotions during
therapy sessions, encouraging emotional communication with significant
others, linking somatic symptoms and emotional processes
Exposure, linking memories with emotions and symptoms, symptom control
techniques, EFT, EMDR
Note. PPPT ⫽ predisposing factors, precipitating factors, perpetuating factors, and seizure triggers; EFT ⫽ emotional
freedom technique; EMDR ⫽ eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
formation of a therapeutic alliance particularly
The first task of the initial session is therefore
to elicit and address any ambivalence. The therapist might open the session by asking, “I wonder
how you felt about coming to see me today?”
often followed by “I wonder whether it made any
sense to you when Dr X suggested you come to
see me?” This provides an opportunity for the
patient to express anxiety, anger, or confusion
about how his or her symptoms might be linked
to emotional factors and what therapy might entail. The therapist accepts these feelings empathically, gives everyday examples of how emotions
can affect people’s physical functioning (e.g.,
blushing and anxiety), and explains that NES
often seem to be linked to feelings and experiences, currently or in the past, that have been too
painful to deal with. The therapist explains the
task of the first session as being to talk about the
patient’s symptoms and life, to see if the therapist
and patient together can identify any stress that
may be related to the symptoms.
Developing a formulation. In view of the heterogeneous nature of the clinical problems, the
targeting and adaptation of the therapeutic approach are based on a personalized assessment of
each patient in the first session. The therapist
starts this process by obtaining a full description
and history of the symptoms, including the impact of the seizures on the patient’s life and
relationships, any events of emotional significance that might have occurred in the year before
the onset of symptoms, and any factors that act as
symptom triggers. This helps to engage the patient, reassuring him or her that the physical
symptoms are being taken seriously, and starts to
identify potential precipitating factors, illness
perceptions, reliance on health services, and areas
of avoidance. The therapist also takes a full life
history, exploring interpersonal patterns in childhood and adulthood, traumatic events, bereavements, and illnesses experienced by the patient or
other family members, eliciting the emotional
impact and coping styles adopted. The patient’s
current life is also explored, with an emphasis on
the quality of interpersonal relationships.
Toward the end of the session, the therapist
attempts to draw together a tentative formulation
to share with the patient, linking the patient’s
symptoms with problematic emotional and interpersonal patterns and unprocessed or unresolved
trauma or loss. If possible, this is framed in terms
of predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating
Howlett and Reuber
factors and symptom triggers (Howlett et al.,
2007). If the patient agrees with the formulation,
goals for therapy based on it are discussed. If a
formulation cannot be made at this stage, the goal
of therapy might be to continue exploration of the
patient’s symptoms. A verbal contract for therapy
is agreed on, which includes an initial number of
sessions (usually six or eight), which may be
reviewed and revised, and the target areas for
therapy based on the formulation. Symptoms–
emotions diary keeping is often introduced at this
stage to identify possible triggers and reinforce
the mind– body link.
Changing illness perceptions. The lack of
understanding (or denial) of the possible adverse
effects of negative life events on emotional health
may be an important etiological factor for NES. It
has been shown that patients with NES are less
willing to consider stress as a cause of seizures
than are patients with epilepsy, although NES
patients report a higher number of adverse life
events (Binzer, Stone, & Sharpe, 2004; Stone,
Binzer, & Sharpe, 2004). Many NES patients also
have an unhelpful, strictly dualistic understanding of illness (Green et al., 2004; Thompson,
2007). Patients who fail to accept the relevance of
environmental stresses and the effects of their
own avoidant coping strategies are likely to remain ambivalent about embracing psychological
therapy and may continue to exhibit inappropriate health care utilization behavior, perceive
themselves as sick and dependent, withdraw from
employment and social activities, and rely on
health-related benefits. Changing illness perceptions and developing greater understanding of the
link between physical symptoms and psychological factors is therefore necessary for the patient
to engage with therapy as well as being a key
goal of therapy in its own right. Starting in the
first session, this task often needs to be continued
and reinforced as therapy continues. Ways of
achieving this include the everyday examples of
physical manifestation of emotions described
above and the individual formulation, particularly
emphasizing chronological links between life
events and symptom onset or exacerbations.
Symptom control. We have found that patients are often able to ward off threatened NES
with a sensory grounding approach devised for
this purpose (see Figure 1). This can work if
patients have a seizure warning. Stress reduction
techniques (e.g., abdominal breathing or relaxation techniques; Borkovec & Costello, 1993)
can help when seizures are linked to high levels
of autonomic arousal. Patients suffering from
panic attacks or traumatic flashbacks can also be
shown techniques to exert some control over
these symptoms (Rothschild, 2000). These tech-
Helpful procedure for dealing with threatened seizures or panic attacks
It is a good idea to practice this regularly when you are feeling OK so that when you really
need it you will remember exactly what to do. Then as soon as you get a seizure warning or
start to panic:
Feel something, preferably something rough or textured, with your fingers and
thumbs. Really focus on what this feels like. As you do this also put your feet flat on
the floor and be aware of the ground solid under your feet. If you are sitting down be
aware of the chair solid underneath you.
Look around you and really focus on the things you can see. Describe them to
yourself in detail.
Listen and see what sounds you can hear, e.g. people talking, birds singing, traffic
noise etc
Remind yourself where you are, what day of the week it is, what year it is, who you
are with etc.
Remind yourself that you are safe.
FIGURE 1. Sensory grounding approach.
Brief Therapy for Nonepileptic Seizures
niques are introduced toward the end of the first
session, to demonstrate some concrete benefits
from therapy at this stage and so that the patient
can benefit even if he or she withdraws from
therapy. Work on symptom control may continue
in later sessions, with the aim of improving the
patient’s quality of life and sense of control.
Effective symptom control can also reduce anxiety and increase the patient’s tolerance when the
therapy begins to tackle avoidance and the processing of trauma. In fact, some patients with
frequent seizures can only benefit from the therapy sessions once the frequent disruptions caused
by the seizures have been minimized through the
use of symptom control techniques.
Subsequent Sessions
Thereafter, therapy is tailored to the needs of
individual patients, based on the formulation developed in the first session. The areas addressed
in the first session may need to be reinforced at
intervals during the course of therapy. Additional
key aims and interventions are discussed in the
following paragraphs.
Increasing independence. Patients with NES
often show a marked preference for the use of
avoidant coping strategies (Frances, Baker, &
Appleton, 1999; Goldstein et al., 2004). This is
often out of proportion to the likely risks, leading
to an increasingly restricted lifestyle and dependence on family and caregivers. What is more,
patients and caregivers fail to perceive the risks
associated with a persistent avoidance of places
or activities of perceived danger (such as dependence, isolation, and loss of self-esteem). Encouragement is given to tackling avoidance and
changing interpersonal patterns to encourage separation and self-care and increase independence,
with the help of agreed-on between-session goals
and the symptom control techniques described
Encouraging self-care. Clinical experience
suggests that a significant subgroup of patients
with NES tend to overlook or deny their own
needs for a balanced life with a healthy diet,
adequate rest and relaxation, and love and support from others. Such patients may work extremely long hours, devote a disproportionate
amount of their life to caring for others, neglect
their own diet, consume large amounts of caffeine or alcohol, and take no time for their own
enjoyment, often not recognizing or feeling able
to tackle the stress they are under. Encouragement is given to setting limits, assertiveness in
resisting pressures, delegating to others, and selfnurturing, using a goal-setting approach.
Enlisting family, caregivers, and other health
care professionals. The attitudes and behavior
of family members and caregivers can have a
profound impact on whether a patient accepts the
diagnosis of NES and thereafter engages with and
makes use of psychological treatment. For this
reason, they are routinely invited to accompany
the patient for one session to reinforce the diagnosis, discuss symptom management, explain the
treatment approach, and enlist their support for
some of the therapeutic goals.
There is frequently an element of confusion
among different health care professionals involved with the patient concerning the nature of
the diagnosis, particularly when the patient has
been investigated by several different medical
specialists and has frequent hospital admissions
to a number of different hospitals. In this case,
clear communication concerning the diagnosis
and treatment approach and a reduction of the
number of health practitioners involved in offering medical advice can avoid inappropriate treatment and investigations and the reinforcement of
incorrect illness perceptions.
Improving emotional processing. Given the
high rate of alexithymia in patients with NES
(Bewley, Murphy, Mallows, & Baker, 2005;
Stone et al., 2004) and also evidence of health
benefits of the disclosure of information,
thoughts, and feelings about personal and meaningful topics (Frataroli, 2006; Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999), attention is given to improving patients’ understanding of their own emotional
functioning. Emotional communication and disclosure are encouraged both in the context of the
therapy and in their interpersonal relationships.
This is seen as a way of improving symptoms and
preventing relapse by changing long-term emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns. A key
aspect of the therapy is “staying with” feelings
(emotions and bodily responses) that arise in
therapy, to explore, understand, and learn to tolerate them. The therapist might say, “I guess you
may be feeling a bit upset now. Let’s try to stay
with those feelings and see what’s happening.”
Processing trauma. A high prevalence of severe trauma has been linked to NES and other
functional neurologic symptoms (Binzer et al.,
2004; Bowman, 1993; Bowman & Markand,
Howlett and Reuber
1999; Reuber et al., 2007). Where this is identified, trauma-processing techniques are used to
resolve trauma-related symptoms such as dissociation and flashbacks, autonomic hyperarousal,
and intense emotional and other psychosomatic
reactions. Techniques used include imaginal exposure, somatic trauma therapy (linking imaginal
exposure to current somatic and emotional reactions), and the Emotional Freedom Technique
(Wells, Polglase, & Andrews, 2003). We have
not used eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, but it is an evidence-based treatment
that could be useful in this context (National
Institute of Clinical Excellence, 2005; F. Shapiro,
Care is taken to process trauma gently, only
with the patient’s agreement, to avoid retraumatization and the provocation of seizures in the
session. Where there is severe complex multiple
trauma, processing of traumatic memories may
not be safe in this relatively brief therapy.
Chronology of Interventions
The individualized nature of the therapy entails
a level of flexibility with the chronology of interventions. A number of the tasks from the first
session may need to be revisited later in the
therapy. Session 2 reviews the patient’s somatic
and emotional reaction to the first session and
current understanding of physical– emotional
links. The diary is reviewed, as well as the use
and effectiveness of symptom control measures.
Perpetuating factors are explored and initial goals
for tackling these agreed on.
Family and caregivers are often invited to the
third session (with the patient’s agreement) to
explain the therapeutic approach and enlist their
support. In subsequent sessions, the therapist
continues to monitor somatic symptoms and reinforce the somatic–psychological–interpersonal
link. Generally, areas that help to build confidence and independence—such as symptom control, tackling avoidance, and encouraging selfcare—are addressed earlier. More difficult areas
such as bereavement or trauma processing are
undertaken later in the therapy, once the therapeutic relationship is more established.
Because loss is often an issue, the approaching
end of therapy is referred to at intervals throughout the treatment. In the final session, the ending
is acknowledged and the patient’s feelings about
it explored. Symptoms are reviewed, and
progress made in therapy discussed. Therapeutic
work that needs to be reinforced and continued
after therapy to prevent relapse is outlined. The
content of the discharge letter is agreed on, in
particular the detail in which sensitive personal
information should be included. For some patients,
a follow-up session is scheduled for 2 or 3 months
ahead in cases in which this seems helpful.
Application in Practice
We illustrate the scope and limitations of the
approach with three case vignettes. The cases
show how the model is applied to different patients in practice. We describe Case A in some
detail to illustrate specific interventions by the
therapist and how decisions might be made as to
the order of interventions in a complex case. A
verbatim transcript was not available, but the case
has been reconstructed from contemporaneous
and postsession notes. We present Cases B and C
in summary form.
Case A
Initial session. A., a 34-year-old woman
claiming disability benefits, was brought to the
first session by her partner (also her registered
caregiver). Both were angry and upset about the
diagnosis of NES and had written a letter of
complaint to the referring neurologist. The early
part of this session was spent with both of them,
addressing these feelings before A. was willing to
engage with the rest of the session alone.
A. described frequent attacks of sudden onset,
often resembling sleep but sometimes involving
violent jerking of arms and legs and arching of
her back. She experienced volatile mood swings
and violent outbursts, particularly after intercourse, and had once attacked her partner with a
knife. She viewed herself as disabled and needing
constant care and was extremely dependent on
her partner and teenage stepsons. She never went
out alone and considered herself incapable of
helping around the house. She also suffered from
bulimia nervosa, including a compulsion to steal
other people’s food. Infantilization in her interpersonal relationships emerged in this first session as she began to whimper and reverted to
childlike speech when mentioning the deaths of
her grandparents some years before.
Therapist: I guess you’re feeling quite little as you talk about
them. (understanding hypothesis)
Brief Therapy for Nonepileptic Seizures
A.: I was the youngest in the family, and they really looked
after me and did everything for me. They always called me
the bairn [local term for baby] even after I’d grown up.
Therapist: I guess that sounds a bit like how things are now
at home with C [her partner] and the boys looking after you
all the time. (linking hypothesis).
A.: Yes, C puts me on the sofa with a blanket when I have a
fit and says, “It’s OK, Daddy’s here.”
The metaphor of the bairn and themes of growing up and taking responsibility for herself became a key focus for the therapy. The urge to take
other people’s food was also linked to this dependence and inability to feed herself.
Predisposing factors: Childhood family environment that infantilized her and discouraged
independence; rape by her biological father at
the age of 13; unresolved grief concerning the
deaths of her grandparents; traumatized by a
house fire she had been in 5 years earlier
Precipitating factor: Car crash a few months
before the onset of symptoms
Perpetuating factors: Continuing interpersonal
relationships based on dependency and illness
Seizures were often triggered by traumatic
reminders such as sirens, flashing lights, and
proximity to smoke and fire. Her presentation
was consistent with DSM–IV diagnoses for
conversion disorder with seizures or convulsions, bulimia nervosa, posttraumatic stress
disorder, and dependent personality disorder. It
was agreed that we would meet initially for 8
sessions to address these issues. In fact, this
was reviewed later, and A was seen for 30
sessions of therapy in all, the normal limit of
20 sessions having been relaxed because of the
complexity of her problems.
Subsequent sessions. The early sessions focused on the two themes of anxiety management
and changing the pattern of dependence. Sensory
grounding was introduced to help her gain control over her seizures and panic attacks, and graduated tasks for independent activity between sessions were agreed on. Her partner’s support was
enlisted to encourage autonomy and relate to her
in a more adult way. His subsequent refusal to
respond to childlike behavior became an important impetus for change.
Once A. was feeling more self-reliant and the
therapeutic relationship had consolidated, bereavement therapy concerning her grandparents
was undertaken, which contributed to her letting
go of the bairn role. Her self-perceptions of being
ill and dependent were also addressed. Later in
the therapy, it felt safe to undertake somatic
trauma therapy, initially relating to the house fire
and car crash. This entailed linking imaginal exposure to her somatic and emotional responses in
the therapy room. Most difficult was trauma therapy concerning the very brutal rape by her father,
a key episode in the therapy, after which she was
able to heal. Her attacks on her partner during
intercourse were identified as dissociative episodes in which she relived elements of this event.
Outcome. The number of seizures was
greatly diminished by the end of therapy and at
follow-up 18 months later, and A. felt that she
could live with the occasional episodes she still
experienced. She had become more independent
and able to go most places alone. She undertook
a qualification in child care with a view to a
career in that field and was working with her
partner raising livestock and growing vegetables
on three allotments. She was emotionally more
stable and rarely exhibited any bulimic behavior.
Case B
Initial session. B. was a 35-year-old hospital
cleaner with a 4-year history of NES. At referral,
she was experiencing 10 –15 seizures a month and
had missed a lot of work as a result. She had high
levels of social anxiety and rarely went out alone,
depending on family members to accompany her. In
social situations, she would sit quietly, avoiding
interacting, and rely on her husband to keep the
conversation going. The embarrassment about her
seizures exacerbated this avoidant tendency. She
tended to push painful emotions out of her mind,
not acknowledging them to herself or sharing them
even with her husband.
Predisposing factors: Difficult relationship
with her mother, whom she described as critical, controlling, and demanding, and emotional
patterns of low self-esteem, extreme social reticence, and emotional denial.
Precipitating factors: Loss of her much-loved
grandmother and a cousin shortly before the
Howlett and Reuber
onset of symptoms. Characteristically, she had
not engaged with her feelings or talked to
anyone about these losses.
Perpetuating factors: Low self-esteem and social anxiety, the unresolved losses, and her
difficulty in resisting her mother’s constant
demands. The painful feelings relating to these
issues had not been processed and were being
manifested somatically through her symptoms.
Her presentation met the criteria for DSM–IV
diagnoses of conversion disorder with seizures
or convulsions and generalized social phobia.
Subsequent sessions. The patient was seen
for eight therapy sessions. A sensory grounding
technique was introduced to help her gain control
over her seizures and anxiety symptoms. Her
pattern of social avoidance was tackled by exploring her thoughts and feelings and agreeing to
do a series of social tasks, for example, going
shopping alone and initiating social interactions.
Focused work was undertaken on the loss of her
grandmother. She was encouraged to communicate more about her feelings, particularly with her
husband. In a joint session with her husband, his
support was enlisted to foster this and also encourage assertiveness with her mother. The establishment of a strong therapeutic alliance early
in the therapy meant that she tackled her
between-session tasks and made rapid progress.
Outcome. She began to face things she had
avoided before, for example, using public
transport, taking social initiative, and so forth.
She was seizure free by end of therapy and at 6
months follow-up. Her husband telephoned
several months after the end of therapy to comment on the extent to which their lives had been
Case C
Initial session. C. was a 52-year-old married
woman diagnosed with epilepsy when she was
28. This had been fully controlled with antiepileptic medication until she was 40. When an
attempt was made to stop the medication, she had
a further convulsion and subsequently developed
episodes of childlike speech and behavior not
associated with epileptic discharges on video
electroencephalogram monitoring. At the age of
42, she began to suffer sudden collapses lasting
up to 20 min. She would also enter staring,
trancelike states for up to an hour, during which
she would recognize her husband but not her
environment. At referral, she was experiencing
five or six episodes per month. She had some
anxiety and panic symptoms and avoided going
to busy or strange places alone. She had suffered
from depression in the past and attempted an
overdose 6 years before referral after some marital problems, which she claimed were now completely resolved. She was not convinced about a
psychological root to her symptoms and was not
keen to attend therapy.
Formulation. It was difficult to arrive at a
helpful formulation. She described a happy, uneventful childhood. It was not possible to identify
any precipitating events before the onset of seizures or seizure triggers. She claimed to be very
happy with her marriage, family relationships,
and current situation. Although she had been
distressed by her husband’s extramarital affair,
this had occurred after the onset of all types of
seizures and had not been associated with an
increase in seizure frequency.
As regards her interpersonal relationships, she
spent much of her time with her husband, an
arrangement she claimed was based on preference, not dependence. She seemed very disconnected from her emotions, demonstrated no affect
or emotional insight during assessment, and indeed was not unduly distressed about her seizures. Her presentation was consistent with
DSM–IV diagnoses for conversion disorder with
seizures or convulsions and dissociative disorder
not otherwise specified.
Therapy. C. was seen for three sessions
during which it was not possible to find any
agreed-on issues to work on or to establish any
real treatment alliance. Although she seemed
dependent on her husband and family, she was
happy with her interpersonal relationships and
had no wish to change them. She had no seizure
warnings, making it impossible to use seizure
prevention strategies. She was introduced to
relaxation techniques and given a relaxation
tape that she rarely used. Given the lack of
agreed-on therapeutic tasks, she was discharged.
Outcome. At follow-up by the neurologist 18
months later, she was still experiencing attacks,
with a reduced frequency of once every 2 weeks.
She felt she was living better with them.
Brief Therapy for Nonepileptic Seizures
Case B is an example of an unusually straightforward therapy. The patient was amenable to
therapy from the outset and accepting of the
formulation and therapeutic focus agreed on at
assessment. There was no traumatization to deal
with, and she had the personal resources necessary
to start making changes in her interpersonal patterns
early in the therapy. The key patterns and unresolved emotions were identified and worked on.
This contrasts with Case A, which exemplifies
a more typical complex case, in which the current
dysfunctional interpersonal patterns and behavior
are superimposed on a background of developmental problems and multiple traumas that had to
be addressed in turn, making for slower therapeutic progress. It was essential initially to address
the hostility to therapy of both A. and her partner
and to work on building a therapeutic alliance
before any therapy could begin. However, once
engaged, her partner’s support in refusing to respond to her infantile demands and sick role
proved crucial to changing her pattern of dependency. The bereavement work and symbolic “letting go” of her grandparents, who had at times
fostered her dependency, was part of this developmental work. A. had experienced multiple
traumas that were clearly linked to her symptoms.
It only became possible to address these once she
had established trust in the therapist and control
over her symptoms and was taking more responsibility for her life. This was difficult, painstaking
work using the techniques of somatic trauma
therapy as each of the traumatic events was addressed in turn.
Case C illustrates the limitations of psychotherapy with some patients, who have, it must be
remembered, sought medical help for their symptoms, not psychotherapy. Therapy requires an
acceptance on the part of the patient of a possible
link between symptoms and his or her emotional
world and interpersonal patterns and a willingness to actively address the factors identified. In
this case, it was not possible to arrive at a clear
formulation. Although it might be speculated that
C. derived secondary gain from her seizures,
which necessitated a close dependent relationship
with her husband, both seemed happy with this
arrangement and had no wish to change it. Clinical experience suggests that patients whose
symptoms play a key part in maintaining merged,
codependent relationships are unlikely to make
progress. In addition, for those patients like C.
who receive disability benefits, particularly
where their partner is their paid caregiver, symptom cessation has financial implications that may
discourage engagement with therapy. Nonetheless, the reinforcement of the psychogenic nature
of her symptoms may be advantageous in terms
of reducing health care usage and minimizing
future medical interventions.
In other cases, the etiologic factors may seem
clearer to both patient and therapist, but the patient may choose to live with the seizures rather
than make changes in his or her life or revisit the
traumatic events he or she has so determinedly
put behind him or her. In this case, therapy can
nevertheless play a beneficial role in helping the
patient to understand the origins of his or her
seizures, withdraw from antiepileptic medication,
manage the seizures better, and reduce health
anxiety and health care seeking. This in itself
may help to reduce seizure frequency, as was
possibly the case with C.
The most intractable cases are those in which
there is an implacable hostility to a psychological
diagnosis, a strong somatic preoccupation, and a
determined pursuit of alternative opinions to try
to establish a medical cause for the symptoms.
There is then no therapeutic alliance or genuine
engagement with therapy, and little progress is
generally made. It can also be difficult to make
progress with the outpatient treatment approach
described here in patients in whom NES are only
one manifestation of a complex spectrum of
(medically explained or unexplained) physical
symptoms. In such cases, the patient’s life is
often a constant round of medical appointments,
and it is difficult to maintain a psychological
focus or establish regular attendance for therapy.
Therapy is also difficult when the psychological
problems are very severe and the current environment is abusive or chaotic. In such cases,
longer-term therapy, residential treatment, or
psychiatric treatment may be required.
This augmented model of psychodynamic interpersonal therapy offers a structured yet flexible
approach to working with NES that can be tailored to the differing needs of individual patients.
The strengths of this approach include that it
explicitly addresses doubts about the diagnosis
and therapeutic approach, focuses on the patient’s
Howlett and Reuber
presenting symptoms from the outset, and allows
the therapist to approach the problem in a transparent, tentative way, which makes the therapy
more acceptable to somatizing patients.
Although it is an effective therapy for many
people, there are some patients whom this brief
outpatient psychological treatment would not
help. This is particularly the case when patients
reject the idea of a psychological cause completely or are unwilling to work at a psychological level, where the family finances are dependent on continuing illness, and where there are
multiple physical symptoms under medical investigation, very severe psychological issues, continuing abuse, or a chaotic current environment
(e.g., homelessness). Alternative treatment approaches need to be developed for these patients.
The hypothesized mechanisms for change are the
identification and alteration of problematic interpersonal patterns and the processing of repressed
or unrecognized emotions. Research is needed to
explore the interpersonal and emotional processing patterns of patients with NES and whether
therapy-associated changes in these are linked to
changes in symptoms.
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